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US Navy hospital ship departs for Los Angeles amid coronavirus pandemic

The 1,000-bed ship will help free up space for patients in local hospitals.

The USNS Mercy -- one of the Navy's two 1,000-bed hospital ships -- was originally expected to go to the Seattle region, but last week California Gov. Gavin Newsom sent a letter to President Donald Trump requesting that the Mercy be docked in Los Angeles instead.

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At a White House press conference on Sunday evening, the president confirmed the Mercy would be located off the coast of Los Angeles. In a Pentagon briefing on Monday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said it was the Federal Emergency Management Agency that determined the Mercy's destination, despite his initial "hunch" that the ship would go to Seattle.

"The men and women of the Mercy are highly trained professionals and are eager to join this fight to start helping their fellow Americans," Esper said, adding that he expected the ship to dock "later this week."

Navy officials later said on Monday that the ship would take several days to travel from San Diego to Los Angeles because of required operational testing that has to take place at sea before coming into port.

"We definitely have a sense of urgency, and we want to be there as quickly as we can to support his efforts with the local and state authorities," Cmdr. John Rotruck, the commanding officer of the Mercy's military treatment facility, told reporters during the briefing.

The Mercy's sister ship, the USNS Comfort, will head to New York Harbor from its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, in April -- with the later departure date due to scheduled maintenance, officials said. Meanwhile, on Sunday, Trump announced additional resources for Washington state, including four small federal medical stations, with 250 beds and three large federal medical stations with 750 beds.

According to data from Los Angeles County Public Health, the county now has more than 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The county's more than 10 million residents are being told to shelter at home.

"The ship will serve as a referral hospital for non-COVID-19 patients currently admitted to shore-based hospitals, and will provide a full spectrum of medical care to include critical and urgent care for adults," according to the Navy's Third Fleet in a statement about the Mercy on Sunday. "This will allow local health professionals to focus on treating COVID-19 patients and for shore-based hospitals to use their Intensive Care Units and ventilators for those patients."

The Mercy was sailing from San Diego on Monday with more than 800 Navy medical personnel and support staff, as well as 70 "civil service mariners" who operate the ship and assist with cargo and repairs, among other ship-related tasks. The number of personnel will grow to more than 1,100 once the ship gains additional staff at port in Los Angeles, Navy officials said.

In order to prevent the spread of the virus on the Mercy, all personnel -- including medical staff -- and future patients, would be screened for coronavirus symptoms prior to boarding, Navy Surgeon General, Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham told reporters last week.Additionally, Navy officials said on Monday that the ship will have coronavirus tests on board should they need to verify it patients or staff have become ill.

The nearly 900-foot Mercy is unique, with 1,000 hospital beds including 80 intensive care beds. Officials said nine of the Mercy's 12 surgical bays will be available for surgeries, though no pediatric or obstetric care will be provided by the ship's staff. The ship would also bring its own blood bank, a critical resource as blood banks across the United States report urgent shortages.

It marked the Comfort's seventh deployment to the region since 2007, according to the Navy.

But these ships have also served in war times. In 1990, the Mercy supported Operation Desert Shield, serving in the Arabian Gulf for six months and treating nearly 700 patients.

"We're honored to serve," Gillingham said last week of the Mercy's upcoming deployment.

"And although this is not our traditional medical mission, which typically involves combat casualty care, I believe these efforts demonstrate our agility and responsiveness to do what the country asks, wherever and whenever we're needed," he continued.

What to know about coronavirus:

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